Like many other students, I attended the “A Night for Uganda” fundraising event on the 12th of February. This event was organised by The Spinoza Foundation and Enactus UBCO, and was geared toward raising money to purchase goats in their Goats Livelihood project for children who have been battling HIV/AIDS or whose families have been affected by the disease in Uganda. The initial goal was to raise $10,000 CAD to provide families with 200 goats. I interviewed the Spinoza Foundation’s founder, Ugandan and former UBCO Student Spinoza Okuku, to gain more insight into this initiative. The following is a recount of our conversation together.
The Spinoza Foundation began as a Non-Profit Organization (NGO) when Spinoza was still a student at UBCO. Coming from a middle-class Ugandan family, Spinoza was very grateful for the opportunities he got from being able to gain an international award to attend UBCO, and he wanted to share what he perceives as a blessing with other people who have not been as blessed at home and to remember where he came from. A principle that he lives by is:
“Whenever you have something more than other people, it’s actually a test for you to see how much you are ready to let go of for others that are less privileged than you are.”
He went back home every year to Uganda, a step he found instrumental to remind him where he is from, as he says that coming to Canada and having the privilege of a scholarship shields you from certain realities that he thought was necessary to keep cognizant of. He went to different schools to speak with different students before the Foundation was registered as an NGO. Although financially limited, he wanted to give back what he could, which was experiences, lessons, and learnt material from courses in Management.
It is through seeing this work that Spinoza had been doing that a fundamental collaborator, the UBCO Chapter of Enactus, at that point led by Shiven Khera and supervised by Dr. Eric Li, approached him in 2020 about the possibility of doing a project in Uganda. Enactus club students at UBCO were key to the operation of this project, as they provided guidance, monetary support, consultation, network, and other sources of income. In terms of the financial support, they were the initial group to provide a considerable amount of funding to the project. These students, who were working with Spinoza from the very beginning, were very invested in making a difference in the lives of the children living with HIV/AIDS in Uganda.
Collectively, they decided to work with kids with HIV/AIDS because of the many layers of vulnerability they are exposed to. This includes stories of non-consent, the stigma of taking medicine, especially in public and semi-private environments at school dorms, impoverishment, and those who are orphaned or living with extended family. The anti-retroviral medication needed to treat HIV/AIDS requires good nutrition. Many who don’t have access to adequate food are at risk of organ damage.
Through hearing all these stories and having many meetings with the children and their caretakers, it was found that they were interested in the pastoral farming of goats to support them economically and sustainably. Spinoza made it a point to work with pre-existing structures that were already helping the children. This includes government-run clinics and hospitals that give free medicine. Through this, they can identify those with low CD4 counts, which indicate the therapy is not working or there is poor nutrition, and those patients’ vulnerability would be checked. Then they work with parasocial workers who were already working with the community to visit the children and address their needs. When the children receive the goats, it is these parasocial workers that check on how the children have been caring for them.
This intimate work with pre-existing institutions is just one way in which Spinoza would differentiate his work from other humanitarian organisations in the region. He completed his MPhil of Development Studies at the University of Cambridge in 2020 and it has helped him to understand the inhibitors to development, especially as a person from a region in Uganda that has experienced conflict. War attracted many NGOs, which are a source of employment for many people, but the organisations had very little impact. Despite large amounts of money being brought into the region, it is unaccounted for. A lot of money is spent on transport, travel, accommodation etc, which the Spinoza Foundation specifically tries to limit in the foundation. One example he gave was the need to take pictures about the progress made. Initially he wanted to buy a camera, but instead diverted the funds to be used more directly for the children instead as he could use his phone. Though a comparatively small cost to what other NGOs put out, the Spinoza asserts that every cost should be directly related to the project at hand in a meaningful way to achieve the maximum impact.
“I want to give [The Spinoza Foundation] this vision that it can achieve differently. That it can realise what some of the NGOs haven’t. It’s about making sure every cent is accounted for. And that those people know and understand they are also important stakeholders”
A major focus for Spinoza was agency. Many humanitarian organisations and NGOs that work in the Global South work with the assumption and promote the image that these people are helpless and without choice and need salvation from people in developed countries. The Spinoza Foundation, contrastingly, believes that the people do have agency and choice, and this is clear in their approaches to the community. Children and community members are stakeholders in the rearing and care of these goats. They are trained to care for these animals and are responsible for the sale of milk and the growth of their farm. They have full knowledge of where the funding and the goats come from and are empowered to make their own responsible decisions financially moving forward.
“People want to assist themselves more than those that want to assist them. If you put them at the centre, you make them agents of their own change. They are able to realise things you can’t realise for them.”
Dignity is important to give to people who are vulnerable. NGOs are very comfortable using and exploiting the images of children’s faces on their promotional imagery and marketing materials, many times without consent. Spinoza made a very conscious decision to exclude images of children, and especially their faces in promotional material. Any images used were blurred out to protect the interests of the children. The priority was to protect their dignity, privacy and protect against the use of their face on the internet for any other purpose. He took this position a step further by noting he did not even believe parents had the right to consent to the children’s faces being used in this way. During the event, the speakers and visible faces were that of parasocial workers who work with the families and children.
“If we lose a few dollars for not showing their faces, that is money we are willing to lose. Children in Canada seem to be very protected in advertisements, but there seems to be reluctance to do this for African and Black children.”
This initiative also has long-term goals. The work being done with the community is never fixed. For example, the foundation has supported two children going back to school by covering tuition costs for one year since 2021. One child just wanted to go to school to become a doctor. The goat farming is also an avenue to provide children with the means to continue with their education. Spinoza also hopes to set up a farm to sustainably source the goats so that transportation and purchasing costs would be lowered, and therefore that funding can be diverted elsewhere to help communities in need.
A critique to this project may be that giving the children the goats does not get rid of the initial issue of them contracting HIV/AIDS in the first place. In response to this, Spinoza said his foundation hopes to and has already started working on looking into more intervention methods, counselling, and outreach in the community. In his visits to schools, he also speaks to students generally about safe sex and preventive measures. However, this does not mean that those who have already been affected do not deserve to be supported.
“While we are protecting, we should also be able to empower those who need it”
During A Night for Uganda, many different artists with a variety of backgrounds donated their time and talent to perform throughout what became a 4-hour event, whilst attendees donated monetarily. Spinoza, a poet himself, has always seen artists as able to educate, entertain and support different causes. It was also a chance to promote persons in the arts who have been largely side-lined due to the onset of the ongoing pandemic. If you attended, you might have noticed a huge sense of community fostered amongst the artists. This is because these are all persons Spinoza had a personal relationship with, who heeded his request to perform. The artists consisted of musicians, singers, and poets, many of whom are a part of our campus community, and each person or group performed multiple pieces.
A Night for Uganda was very successful. In an email sent out to the attendees, The Spinoza Foundation and Enactus UBCO saw over 60 people attend the event. So far, $8000 has been raised from the fundraiser event. If you or someone you know would like to support, the Eventbrite link is still live, and the donation option is found under “details”. Sixty-three children already have goats from last year and the Spinoza Foundation and Enactus UBCO would love to reach out to 200 more. More information about the Goat Livelihood project can be obtained by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or the event organizers Mohana (email@example.com) or Spinoza (firstname.lastname@example.org).